It is a false and a mistaken notion altogether, that men of great mind and intense thought are easily wearied or annoyed by the presence of children. The man who is wearied with children must always be childish himself in mind; but, alas! not young in heart. He must be light, superficial, though perhaps inquiring and intelligent; but neither gentle in spirit nor fresh in feeling. Such men must always soon become wearied with children; for very great similarity of thought and of mind—the paradox is but seeming—is naturally wearisome in another; while, on the contrary, similarity of feeling and of heart is that bond which binds our affections together. Where both similarities are combined, we may be most happy in the society of our counterpart; but where the link between the hearts is wanting there will always be great tediousness in great similarity.
Thus the Earl of Sunbury, though, Heaven knows, no man on earth could be less childish in his keen and calculating thoughts, or in all his ordinary habits and occupations, yet found a relief, and an enjoyment, in talking with the boy, in eliciting all his fresh and picturesque ideas, and in marking the train and course which thought naturally takes before it is tutored to follow the direction of art. His own heart—for a man of the world—was very fresh; but still the worldly mind ruled it when it would; and the moment that he began to find that the boy might become too much endeared, and too necessary to him, he determined to deprive himself of the present pleasure, rather than risk the future inconvenience.
He accordingly determined to send the boy to school, and little Wilton heard the announcement with pleasure; for though by this time he had become greatly attached to the Earl, he longed for the society of beings of the same age and habits as himself. When he was with the Earl he saw that nobleman was interested with him, but he saw that he was amused with him too; and in this respect children are very like that noblest of animals, the dog. Any one who has remarked a dog when people jest with him, and speak to him mockingly, must have seen that the creature is not wholly pleased, that he seems as if made to feel a degree of inferiority. Such also is the case with children; and little Wilton felt that the Earl was making a sort of playful investigation of his mind, even while he was jesting with him. I have said felt, because it was feeling, not thought, that discovered it; and, therefore, though he loved the Earl notwithstanding all this, he was glad to go where he heard there were many such young beings as himself.
The Earl did not think him ungrateful on account of the open expression of his delight. He saw it all, and understood it all; for he had very few of the smaller selfishnesses, which so frequently blind our eyes to the most obvious facts which impinge against our own vanities. His was a high and noble mind, chained and thralled by manifold circumstances and accidents to the dull pursuits of worldly ambitions. One trait, however, may display his character: he had practised in regard to the boy a piece of that high delicacy of feeling of which none but great men are capable. He had learned and divined, from the short conversation which had taken place between himself and Lennard Sherbrooke, sufficient in regard to the boy's unfortunate situation to guide his conduct in respect to him; and now, even when alone with him in his own drawing-room or library, he asked no farther questions; he pryed not at all into what had gone before; and though the youth occasionally prattled of the wild Irish shores, and the cottage where he had been brought up, the Earl merely smiled, but gave him no encouragement to say more.
At length, Wilton Brown went to school; and as the Earl gradually lost a part of that interest in him which had given prudence the alarm, time had its effect on Wilton also, drawing one thin airy film after another over the events of the past, not obliterating them; but, like the effect of distance upon substantial objects, gathering them together in less distinct masses, and diminishing them both in size and clearness. When the time approached for his holidays, which were few and far between, he was called to the Earl's house, and treated with every degree of kindness; though with mere boyhood went by boyhood's graces, and the lad could not be fondled and played with as the child. The Earl never did anything to make him feel that he was a dependant—no, not for a single moment; but as the boy's mind expanded, and as a certain degree of the knowledge of the world was gained from the habits of a public school, he explained to him, clearly and straight-forwardly, that upon his own exertions he must rely for wealth, fame, and honour. He told him, that in the country where he lived, the road to fortune, dignity, and power, was open to every man; but that road was filled with eager and unscrupulous competitors, and obstructed in many parts by obstacles difficult to be surmounted.
"They can be surmounted, Wilton, however," he added; "and with energy, activity, and determination, that road can be trod, from one end to the other, within the space of a single life, and leave room for repose at the end.—You have often seen," he continued, "a gentleman who visits me here, who rose from a station certainly not higher, or more fortunate than your own,—who is called, even now, the Great Lord Somers, and doubtless the same name will remain with him hereafter. He is an example for all men to follow; and his life offers an encouragement for every sort of exertion. He rose even from a very humble station of life, outstripped all competitors, and is now, as you see, in the post of Lord Keeper, owing no man anything, but all to his own talents and perseverance. The same may be the case with you, Wilton. All that I can do, to place you in the way of winning fortune and station for yourself, I will do most willingly; but in every other respect you must keep in mind, that you are to be the artisan of your own fortune, and shape your course accordingly."
Such was the language held towards Wilton Brown by the Earl, upon more than one occasion; and the boy took what he said to heart, remembered, pondered it, and after much thought and reflection formed the great and glorious resolution of winning honour and renown, by every exertion of his mind and body. It is a resolution that may, perhaps, have often been taken by those who ultimately have never succeeded in the attempt. It is a resolution from which some may have been wiled away by pleasure, or driven by accident. But it is a resolution which no man who afterwards proved great ever failed to take, ay, and to take early. On the head of mediocrity: on the petty statesmen who figure throughout two thirds of the world's history; on the tolerable generals who conduct the ordinary wars of the world; on the small poets and the small philosophers who fill up the ages that intervene between great men, fortune and accident may shower down the highest honours, the greatest power, the most abundant wealth; but the man who in any pursuit has reached the height of real greatness, has set out on his career with the resolution of winning fame in despite of circumstances.
Such was the resolution which was taken, as we have said, by Wilton Brown, and the effect of that very resolution upon him, as a mere lad, was to make him thoughtful, studious, and different from any of the other youths of the school, in habits and manners.
The change was beneficial in many respects, even then. It made him strive to acquire knowledge of every sort and kind that came within his reach, and he always succeeded in some degree. It made him cultivate every talent which he felt that he possessed, and an accurate eye and a musical ear were not neglected as far as he could obtain instruction. He not only acquired much knowledge, but also much facility in acquiring; and his eager and anxious zeal did not pass unnoticed by those who taught him, so that others contributed to his first success, as well as his own efforts.
That first success was, perhaps, unexpected by any one else. The period came, at which he was barely qualified by age to strive in competition with his schoolfellows, for one of those many excellent opportunities afforded by the kindness and wisdom of past ages, for obtaining a high education at one of the universities. He had never himself proposed to be one of the competitors on this occasion, as there was a year open before him to pursue his studies, and there were many boys at the school far older than himself.
The Earl had not an idea that such a thing would take place, as Wilton himself had always expressed the utmost anxiety to pursue a military career. He had never, indeed, even pressed him to adopt another pursuit, although he had pointed out to his protege, that his own influence lay almost entirely in the political world; and his surprise, therefore, was very great, when he heard that Wilton, at the suggestion of the head master, had presented himself for examination on this very first occasion, and had carried off the highest place from all his competitors.
On his arrival in London he received him with delight, showered upon him praises, and fitted him out liberally for his first appearance at the University.
Here, however, Wilton's first fortune seemed to abandon him. About six months after his matriculation, he had the grief to hear that the Earl had been thrown from his horse in hunting, and received various severe injuries. He hastened to one of his country seats, where that nobleman had been sojourning for the time, but found him a very different man from that which he had appeared before. He was not ill enough to need or to desire nursing and tendance, but he was quite ill enough to be irritable, impatient, and selfish; for it is a strange fact, that the very condition which renders us the most dependent on our fellow-creatures too often renders us likewise indifferent to their comfort, in our absorbing consideration of our own. Although he could sit up and walk about, and go forth into his gardens, yet he suffered great pain, which did not seem to diminish; and a frequent spitting of blood rendered him impatient and querulous, whenever his lowest words were not instantly heard and comprehended.
It was a painful lesson to the youth he had brought up; and when the time for Wilton's return to Oxford arrived, and the Earl, with seeming satisfaction, put him in mind that it was time to go, the young gentleman, in truth, felt it a relief from a situation in which he neither well knew how to satisfy himself, or to satisfy the invalid, towards whom he was so anxious to show his gratitude.
He returned, then, to the university, where the allowance made him by the Earl, of two hundred per annum, together with the little income which a successful competition at school had placed at his disposal, enabled him to maintain the society of that class with which he had always associated in life, and to do so with ease to himself; though not without economy. [Footnote: I think that the same was the college allowance of the well-known Evelyn.] The Earl had asked him twice, if he had found the sum enough, and seemed much pleased when Wilton had replied that it was perfectly so. But from that expression he easily divined, that had it been otherwise, the Earl might have said nothing reproachful, but would not have been well satisfied.
Wilton did not mistake the motives of the Earl: he knew him to be anything but a penurious man; and he had long seen and been aware of the motives on which that nobleman acted towards him. He knew that it was with a wish to give him everything that was necessary and appropriate to the situation in which he was placed, but by no means to encourage expensive habits, or desires which might unfit him for the first laborious steps which he was destined to tread in the path of life. He felt, indeed, that there was an ambitious spirit in his own heart, and it cost him many a struggle in thought, to regulate its action: to guide it in the course of all that was good and right, but resolutely to restrain it from following any other path. "Ambition," he thought, "is like a falcon, and must be trained to fly only at what game I will. Its proud spirit must be broken, to bend to this, and to submit to that; to yield even to imaginary indignities, provided they imply no sacrifice of real honour, and to strive for no false show, while I am striving for a greater object."
Thus passed a year, but during that time the Earl's health had been in no degree improved; and a number of painful events had taken place in his political course which had left his mind more irritable than before, while continual suffering had brought upon him a sort of desponding recklessness, which made him cast behind him altogether those things which he had previously considered the great objects of existence, and desire nothing but to quit for ever the scene of political strife, and pass the rest of his days in peace, if not in comfort.
Such had been the state of his mind when Wilton had last seen him in London, towards the beginning of the year 1695; but the young gentleman was somewhat surprised, about a month afterwards, to receive a sudden summons to visit the Earl in town, coupled with information, that it was his friend's design immediately to proceed to Italy, on account of his health. The summons was very unexpected, as we have implied; but the Earl informed him in his letter that he was going without loss of time; and as the shortest way of reaching him, Wilton determined to mount his horse at once, and ride part of the way to London that night. Of his journey, however, and its results, we will speak in another chapter.
That there are epochs in the life of every man, when all the concurrent circumstances of fortune seem to form, as it were, a dam against the current of his fate, and turn it completely into another direction, when the trifling accident and the great event work together to produce an entirely new combination around him, no one who examines his own history, or marks attentively the history of others, can doubt for a moment. It is very natural, too, to believe that there are at those moments indications in our own hearts—from the deep latent sympathies which exist between every part of nature and the rest—that the changes which reason and observation do not point out are about to take place in our destiny: for is it to be supposed, that when the fiat has gone forth which alters a being's whole course of existence—when the electric touch has been communicated to one end of the long chain of cause and effect which forms the fate of every individual being—is it to be supposed that it will not tremble to its most remote link, especially towards that point where the greatest action is to take place?
There come upon us, it seems to me, in those times, fits of musing far deeper and more intense, excitability of feeling—perhaps of imagination too—more acute than at any other time. Perhaps, also, a determination, an energy of will is added, necessary to carry us through, with power and firmness, the struggle, or the change, or the temptation that awaits us.
When Nelson stood upon the quarter-deck of his ship, but a few minutes before the last great victory that closed a career of glory, he felt and expressed a sense that his last hour was come, that the great and final change of fate was near, and that but a few moments remained for the accomplishment of his destiny. But the indication was given to a mind that could employ it nobly; and he to whom the foreshadowing of his fate had been afforded, even as a boy—when he determined that he would, and felt that he could, be a hero—in that last moment, when he knew that the hero's life was done, determined to die as he had lived, and used the prescience of his coming death but to promote the objects for which he had existed.
There may be some men who would say these things are not natural; but if we could see all the fine relationships of one being to another, if the mortal eye refined could view the unsubstantial as well as the substantial world, could mark the keen sympathies and near associations, and all the essences which fill up the apparent gaps between being and being, we should see, undoubtedly, that these things are most natural, and wonder at the blindness with which we have walked in darkling ignorance through the thronged and multitudinous universe.
It was somewhat late in the afternoon when Wilton Brown put his foot in the stirrup, and set off to ride towards London. He did not hope to reach the metropolis that night, but he intended to go as far as he could, so as to insure his arrival before the hour of the Earl's breakfast on the following morning. He had ridden his horse somewhat hard during the morning before he had received the summons to town, and he consequently now set out at a slow pace. Not to weary the noble beast was, in truth, and in reality, his motive; but there was, at the same time, in his mind, a temporary inclination to deep and intense thought, which he could by no means shake off, and which naturally disposed him to a slow and equable pace.
The sudden announcement of the Earl's determination to go abroad, without any intimation that the young man whom he had fostered from youth to manhood was to accompany him, or to follow him to the continent, might very well set Wilton musing on his circumstances and his prospects; but that was not the cause of his meditative mood on the present occasion, though it was the immediate cause of his giving way to it. In truth, the inclination which he felt to low, desponding, though deep and clear thought, had pursued him for the last four-and-twenty hours, and it was to cast it off that he had in fact ridden so hard that very morning. Now, however, he found it necessary to yield to it; and as he rode along, he gave up his mind entirely to the consideration of the past, of the present, and the future.
The Earl had announced to him at once in his letter, that he was about to leave England, but he had made no reference whatsoever to the future fate of him whom he had hitherto protected and supported. Was that protection and support still to continue? Wilton asked himself. His friend had told him that he was to win his way in the world, and was the struggle now to begin? The next question that came was, naturally, Who and what am I, then? and his thoughts plunged at once into a gulf where they had often lost themselves before.
His boyhood had passed away unheeding, and he had attached no importance to his previous fate, nor made any effort to impress upon his own recollection the circumstances which preceded the period of his reception into the Earl's house. Indeed, he had never thought much upon the matter, till at length, when he had reached the age of fifteen, the Earl had kindly and judiciously spoken with him upon his future prospects; and in order to stimulate him to exertion, had pointed out to him that his fortunes depended on himself. He had then, for the first time, asked himself, "Who and what am I?" and had striven to recollect as much as possible of the past, in order to gather thence some knowledge of the present. His efforts had not been very successful.
Time, the great destroyer, envies even memory the power of preserving images of the things that he has done away or altered; and he is sure, if possible, to deface the pictures altogether, or to leave the lines less clear. With Wilton he had done much to blot out and to confuse. At first, memory seemed all a blank beyond the period of his schoolboy days; but gradually one image after another rose out of the void, and one called up another as they came. Still they were clouded and indistinct, like the vague phantoms of a dream. It was with great difficulty that he recollected any names, and could not at all tell in what land it was, that some of the brightest of his memories lay. It was all unconnected, too, with the present, and from it Wilton could derive no clue in regard to the great change that was coming. Between him and the future there appeared to hang a dark pall, which his eye could not penetrate, but behind which was Fate. He tried to combat such feelings: he tried long, as he rode, to conquer them; to put them down by the power of a vigorous mind; to overthrow sensation by thought.
When, however, he found that he could not succeed, when, after many efforts, the oppression—for I will not call it despondency—remained still as powerful as ever, he mentally turned, as if to face an enemy that pursued him, and to gaze full upon the inevitable power itself; all the more awful as it was, in the misty grandeur which shrouded the frowning features from his view. He nerved his heart, too, and resolved, whatever it might be that was in store for him, whatever might be the change, the loss, the adversity, which all his sensations seemed to prophesy, that he would bear it with unshrinking courage, with resolute determination; nay, with what was still more with one of his disposition, with unmurmuring patience.
In the meanwhile, however, he strove, as he went along, to persuade himself that the presentiment was but the work of fancy; that there was nothing real in it; that he had excited himself to fears and apprehensions that were groundless; that the expedition of the Earl to Italy was but a temporary undertaking, and that it would most probably make no change in his situation, no alteration in his fortunes.
Thus thought he, as he rode slowly onward, when, at the distance of about a quarter of a mile, he perceived another horseman, proceeding at a pace perhaps still slower than his own. The aspect of the country between Oxford and London was as different in that day from that which it is at present as it is possible to conceive. There is nothing in all England—with all the changes which have taken place, in manners, morals, feelings, arts, sciences, produce, manufactures, and government—which has undergone so great a change, as the high roads of the empire during the last hundred and fifty years. No one can now tell, where the roads which lay between this place and that then ran. They have been dug into, ploughed up, turned hither and thither, changed into canals, or swallowed up in railroads. The face of the country, too, has been altered, by many a village built, and many an old mansion pulled down, long tracts of country brought into cultivation, and deep plantations of old trees shadowing that ground which in those days was unwholesome marsh, or barren moor. Even Hounslow Heath, beloved by many of the frequenters of the King's Highway, has disappeared under the spirit of cultivation, and left no trace of places where many a daring deed was clone.
However that may be, the road which the young traveller was following, lay not at all in the direction taken by either of the present roads to Oxford; but at a short distance from High Wycombe turned off to the right—that is, supposing the traveller to be going towards London—and approached the banks of the Thames not far from Marlow. In so doing, it passed over a long range of high hills, and a wide extent of flat, common ground upon the top, which was precisely the point whereat Wilton Brown had arrived, at the very moment we began this digression upon the state of the King's Highways in those times.
This common ground of which we speak was as bleak as well might be, for the winds of heaven had certainly room to visit it as roughly as they chose; it was also uncultivated, and yet it cannot be said to have been unproductive; for, probably, there never was a space of ground of equal size, unless it were Maidenhead Thicket, which could show so rich and luxuriant a crop of gorse, heath, and fern. For a shelter to the latter, appeared scattered at unequal distances over the ground a few stunted trees—hawthorns, beeches, and oaks. The beech, however, predominated, in honour of the county in which the common was situated; for though, probably, if we knew the origin of the name bestowed on each county in England, we should find them all significant, yet none, I believe, would be found more picturesque or appropriate than that given by our good Saxon ancestors to the county in question—being Buchen-heim, or Buckingham: the home or land of the beeches.
The gorse, fern, and heath, besides a small quantity of not very rich grass, and a few wild flowers, were the only produce of the ground, except the trees that I have mentioned; and the only tenants of the place were a few sheep, by far too lean to need any one to look after them. On the edges of the common, indeed, might be found an occasional goose or two, but they were like the white settlers on the coast of Africa: venturing rarely and timidly into the interior. A high road went across this track, as I have shown; but it being necessary, from time to time, that farmers' carts, and other conveyances, horses, waggons, tinkers' asses, and flocks of sheep, should cross it in different directions, and as each of these travelling bodies, in common with the world in general, liked to have a way of its own, the furze and fern had been cut down in many long straight lines; and paths for horse and foot, as well as long tracks of wheels, and deep ruts, crossed and recrossed each other all over the common. To have seen it—nay, to see it now, for it exists very nearly in its primeval state—one would suppose, from all the various tracks, that it was a place of great thoroughfare, when, to say truth, though I have crossed it some twenty times or more, I never saw any travelling thing upon it but a solitary tax-cart and a gipsy's van.
It was just about the middle of this common, then, that Wilton Brown, as I have said, perceived another horseman riding along at the same slow pace as himself. Their faces were both turned one way, with a few hundred yards between them; and it appeared to the young gentleman, that the other personage whom we have mentioned was coming in an oblique line towards the high road to which he himself was journeying. This supposition proved to be correct, as the stranger, riding along the path that he was following, came abreast of Wilton Brown upon the high road, just at the spot where a comfortable direction-post pointed with the forefinger of a rude hand carved in the wood, along a path to the left, bearing inscribed, in large letters, "To Woburn."
The young traveller examined the other with a hasty but marking glance, and perceived thereby, that he was a stout man of the middle age, between the unpleasant ages of forty and fifty, but without any loss of power or activity. He was mounted on a strong black horse, had a quick and eager eye, and altogether possessed a fine countenance, but there was some degree of shy suspicion in his look, which did not seem to indicate any very great energy or force of determination.
It now wanted not more than a quarter of an hour to sunset, and there was a bright rich yellow light in the western sky, which gave each traveller a fair excuse for staring into the face of the other, as if their eyes were dazzled by the beams of the declining sun.
When he had satisfied himself, Wilton Brown turned away his eyes, and rode on, gazing quietly over the wide extent of bleak common, which, to say sooth, offered a picturesque scene enough, with its scrubby trees, and its large masses of tall gorse, lying in the calm evening air; while deep blue shadows, and clear lights resting here and there in the hollows and upon the swells, marked them out distinctly to the view.
In a moment after, however, Wilton's ears were saluted by the stranger's voice, saying, "Give you good evening, young gentleman—it has been a fine afternoon."
Now this might appear somewhat singular in the present day—when human beings have adopted a particular sort of mysterious ordinance, by which alone they can become thoroughly known and acquainted with each other—and when no man, upon any pretence or consideration whatsoever, dare speak to a fellow-creature, until some one known to both of them has whispered some cabalistic words between them, which, in general, neither of them hear distinctly. At the time I speak of, however, acquaintance was much more easily made, so far, at least, as common civility and the ordinary charities of life went. A man might speak to another at that time, if any accidental circumstances threw them close together, without any risk of being taken for a fool, a swindler, or a brute; and there was, in short, a good-humoured frankness and simplicity in those days, which formed, to say the truth, the best part about them; for the good old times, as they are called, were certainly desperately coarse, and a trifle more vicious than the present.
Such being the case then, Wilton Brown was not in the least surprised at the address of the stranger, but turned, and replied civilly; and being, indeed, somewhat dissatisfied with the companionship of his own thoughts, he suffered his horse to jog on side by side with the beast of the stranger, and entered into conversation with him willingly enough. He found him an intelligent and clever man, with a tone and manner superior, in many points, to his dress and equipage. He seemed to speak with authority, and was conversant with the great world of London, with the court, and the camp. He knew something also of France, and its self-called great monarch. He spoke with a shrug of the shoulder and an Alas! of the court of Saint Germain, and the exiled royal family of England; but he said nothing that could commit him to either one party or the other; and though he certainly left room for Wilton to express his own sentiments, if he chose to do so, he did not absolutely strive to lead him to any political subject, which formed in those days a more dangerous ground than at present.
Wilton, however, had not the slightest inclination to discuss politics with a stranger. Brought up by a Whig minister, educated in the Protestant religion, and fond of liberty upon principle, it may easily be imagined, that he not only looked upon those who now swayed, and were destined to sway, the British sceptre as the lawful and rightful possessors of power in the country, but he regarded the actual sovereign himself—though he might not love him in his private character, or admire him in those acts, where the man and the monarch were too inseparably blended to be considered apart—as a great deliverer of this country, from a tyranny which had been twice tried and twice repudiated. At the same time, however, he felt for the exiled monarch. But he felt still more for his noble wife, and for his unhappy son. His own heart told him that those two had been unjustly dealt with, the one calumniated, the other punished without a fault. Nor did he blame the true and faithful servants whom adversity could not shake, and who were only loyal to a crime, who still adhered to their old allegiance, loved still the sovereign, who had never ill-treated them, and were ready again to shed their blood for the house in whose service so much noble blood had already flowed. He did not—he did not in his own heart—blame them, and he loved not to consider what necessity there might be for putting down with the strong and unsparing hand of law the frequent renewal of those claims which had been decided upon by the awful sentence of a mighty nation.
But upon none of these subjects spoke he with the stranger. He refrained from all such topics, though they were with some skill thrown in his way; and thus the journey passed pleasantly enough for about half an hour. By that time the sun had gone down; but it was a clear, bright evening with a long twilight; and the evening rays, like gay children unwilling to go to sleep, lingered long in rosy sport with the light clouds before they would sink to rest beneath the western sky. The twilight was becoming grey, however, and the light falling short, when, at about the distance of half a mile before they reached the spot where the common terminated, the two travellers approached a rise and fall in the ground, beyond which ran a little stream with a small old bridge of one arch, not in the best repair, carrying the highway over the water with a sharp and sudden turn. Scattered about in the neighbourhood of the bridge, and on the slope that led down to it, perched upon sundry knolls and banks, and pieces of broken ground, were a number of old beeches, mostly hollowed out by time, but still flourishing green in their decay. These trees, together with the twilight, prevented the bridge itself from being seen by the travellers; but as they came near, they heard a sudden cry, as if called forth by either terror or surprise, and Wilton instantly checked his horse to listen.
"Did you not hear a scream?" he said, addressing his companion in a low voice.
"Yes," answered the other, "I thought I did: let us ride on and see."
Wilton's spurs instantly touched his horse's side, and he rode quickly down the slope towards the bridge, which he well remembered, when a scene was suddenly presented to his view, which for a moment puzzled and confounded him.
Just at the turn of the bridge lay overturned upon the road one of the large, heavy, wide-topped vehicles, called a coach in those days, while round about it appeared a group of persons whose situation, for a moment, seemed to him dubious, but which soon became more plain. A gentleman, somewhat advanced in life—perhaps about fifty-eight or fifty-nine, if not more—stood by the door of the carriage, from which he had recently emerged, and with him two women, one of whom was a young lady, apparently of about seventeen years of age, and the other her maid. Three men—servants stood about their master; but they had not the slightest appearance of any intention of giving aid to any one; for, though sundry were the situations and attitudes in which they stood, each of those attitudes betokened, in a greater or a less degree, the uncomfortable sensation of fear. One of them, indeed, had a brace of pistols in his two hands, but those hands dropped, as it were, powerless by his side, and his knees were bent into a crooked line, which certainly indicated no great firmness of heart.
To account for the trepidation displayed by several of the persons present, it may be necessary to state that round the overthrown vehicle stood five personages, each of whom held a cocked pistol in his hand, and, in two instances, the hands that held those pistols were raised in an attitude of menace not to be mistaken. In one instance, the weapon of offence was pointed towards the gentleman who appeared to be the owner of the carriage; in the other, it was directed towards the head of the poor girl, his daughter, who seemed to have not the slightest intention of resisting.
This formidable gesture was accompanied by words, which were spoken loud enough for Wilton to hear, as he pushed his horse down the hill; and those words were, "Come, madam! your ear-rings, quick: do not keep us all night with your hands shaking. By the Lord, I will get them out in a quicker fashion, if you do not mind."
Before we can proceed to describe what occurred next, it may be necessary to state one feature in the case, which was very peculiar—this was, that at about forty yards from the spot where the robbery was taking place, upon the top of a small bank, with his horse grazing near, and his arms crossed upon his chest, stood a man of gentlemanly appearance and powerful frame, taking no part whatsoever in the affray; not opposing the proceedings of the plunderers, indeed, but gnawing his nether lip, as if anything rather than well contented. He fixed a keen, even a fierce eye upon Wilton as he rode down; but neither the young gentleman himself, nor the other traveller, who followed him at full speed, took any notice of him, but coming on with their pistols drawn from their holsters, they were soon in the midst of the group round the carriage.
Wilton, unaccustomed to such encounters, was not very willing to shed blood, and therefore—the chivalrous spirit in his heart leading him at once towards one particular spot in the circle—he struck the man who was brutally pointing his pistol at the girl, a blow of his clenched fist, which hitting him just under the ear, as he turned at the sound of the horse's feet, laid him in a moment motionless and stunned upon the ground.
The young gentleman, by the same impulse, and almost at the same instant, sprang from his horse, and cast himself between the lady and the assailants; but at that moment the voice of his travelling companion met his ear, exclaiming, in a thundering tone, "That is right! that is right! Now stand upon the defensive till my men come up!"
Wilton did not at all understand what this might mean; but turning to the servants already on the spot, he exclaimed, in a sharp tone, "Stand forward like men, you scoundrels!" and they, seeing some help at hand, advanced a little with a show of courage.
The gentlemen of the King's Highway, however, had heard the words which Wilton's companion had shouted to him; and seeing themselves somewhat overmatched in point of numbers already, they did not appear to approve of more men coming up on the other side, before they had taken their departure. There was, consequently, much hurrying to horse. The man who had been knocked down by Wilton was dragged away by the heels, from the spot where he lay somewhat too near to the other party; and the sharp application of the gravel to his face, as one of his companions pulled him along by the legs, proved sufficiently reviving to make him start up, and nearly knock his rescuer down.
Wilton—not moved by the spirit of an ancient Greek—felt no inclination to fight for the dead or the living body of his foe; and the whole party of plunderers were speedily in the saddle and on the retreat, with the exception of the more sedate personage on the bank. He, indeed, was more slow to mount, calling the man who had been knocked down "The Knight of the Bloody Nose" as he passed him; and then with a light laugh springing into the saddle, he followed the rest at an easy canter.
"Ha! ha! ha!" exclaimed Wilton's companion of the road, laughing, "let me be called the master of stratagems for the rest of my life! Those five fools have suffered themselves to be terrified from their booty, simply by three words from my mouth and their own imaginations."
"Then you have no men coming up?" said Wilton.
"Not a man," replied the other: "all my men are busy in my own house at this minute; most likely saying grace over roast pork and humming ale."
The events that happen to us in life gather themselves together in particular groups, each group separated in some degree from that which follows and that which goes before, but yet each united, in its own several parts, by some strong bond of connexion, and each by a finer and less apparent ligament attached to the other groups that surround it. In short, if, as the great poet moralist has said, "All the world is a stage, and all the men and women in it only players," the life of each man is a drama, with the events thereof divided into separate scenes, the scenes gathered into grand acts, and the acts all tending to the great tragic conclusion of the whole. Happy were it for man if he, like a great dramatist, would keep the ultimate conclusion still in view.
In the life of Wilton Brown, the scene of the robbers ended with the words which we have just said were spoken by his travelling companion, and a new scene was about to begin.
The elderly gentleman to whom the carriage apparently belonged, took a step forward as the stranger spoke the last sentence, exclaiming, "Surely I am not mistaken—Sir John Fenwick, I believe." The stranger pulled off his hat and bowed low. "The same, your grace," he replied: "it is long since we have met, and I am happy that our meeting now has proved, in some degree, serviceable to you."
"Most serviceable, indeed, Sir John," replied the Duke, shaking him warmly by the hand; "and how is your fair wife, my Lady Mary? and my good Lord of Carlisle, and all the Howards?"
"Well, thank your grace," replied Sir John Fenwick, "all well. This, I presume, is your fair daughter, my Lady."
"She is, sir, she is," interrupted the Duke: "you have seen her as a child, Sir John. But pray, Sir John, introduce us to your gallant young friend, to whom we are also indebted for so much."
"He must do that for himself," replied Sir John Fenwick: "we are but the companions of the last half hour, and comrades in this little adventure."
Although accustomed to mingle with the best society; and, in all ordinary cases, free and unrestrained in his own manners, Wilton Brown felt some slight awkwardness in introducing himself upon the present occasion. He accordingly merely gave his name, expressing how much happiness he felt at the opportunity he had had of serving the Duke; but referred not at all to his own station or connexion with the Earl of Sunbury.
"Wilton Brown!" said the Duke, with a meaning smile, and gazing at him from head to foot, while he mentally contrasted his fine and lofty appearance, handsome dress, and distinguished manners, with the somewhat ordinary name which he had given. "Wilton Brown! a NOM DE GUERRE, I rather suspect, my young friend?"
"No, indeed, my lord," replied Wilton: "were it worth anybody's while to search, it would be found so written in the books of Christchurch."
"Oh! an Oxonian," cried the Duke, "and doubtless now upon your way to London. But how is this, my young friend, you are in midst of term time!"
Wilton smiled at the somewhat authoritative and parental tone assumed by the old gentleman. "The fact is, my Lord Duke," he said, "that I am obliged to absent myself, but not without permission. The illness of my best friend, the Earl of Sunbury, and his approaching departure for Italy, oblige me to go to London now to see him before he departs."
"Oh, the Earl of Sunbury, the Earl of Sunbury," replied the Duke: "a most excellent man, and a great statesman, one on whom all parties rely.* That alters the case, my young friend; and indeed, whatever might be the cause of your absence from Alma Mater, we have much to thank that cause for your gallant assistance—especially my poor girl here. Let me shake hands with you—and now we must think of what is to be clone next, for it is well nigh dark: the carriage is broken by those large stones which they must have put in the way, doubtless, to stop us; and it is hopeless to think of getting on farther to-night."
[*Footnote: Let it be remarked that this was not the Earl of Sunderland, of whom the exact reverse might have been said.]
"Hopeless, indeed, my lord," replied Sir John Fenwick; "but your grace must have passed on the way hither a little inn, about half a mile distant, or somewhat more. There I intended to sleep to-night, and most probably my young friend, too, for his horse seems as tired as mine. If your grace will follow my advice, you would walk back to the inn, make your servants take everything out of the carriage, and send some people down afterwards to drag it to the inn-yard till to-morrow morning."
"It is most unfortunate!" said the Duke, who was fond of retrospects. "We sent forward the other carriage about three hours before us, in order that the house in London might be prepared when we came."
The proposal of Sir John Fenwick, however, was adopted; and after giving careful and manifold orders to his servants, the Duke took his way back on foot towards the inn, conversing as he went with the Knight. His daughter followed with Wilton Brown by her side; and for a moment or two they went on in silence; but at length seeing her steps not very steady over the rough road upon which they were, Wilton offered his left arm to support her, having the bridle of his horse over the right.
She took it at once, and he felt her hand tremble as it rested on his arm, which was explained almost at the same moment. "It is very foolish, I believe," she said, in a low, sweet voice, "and you will think me a terrible coward, I am afraid; but I know not how it is, I feel more terrified and agitated, now that this is all over, than I did at the time."
The communication being thus begun, Wilton soon found means to soothe and quiet her. His conversation had all that ease and grace which, combined with carefulness of proprieties, is only to be gained by long and early association with persons of high minds and manners. There was no restraint, no stiffness—for to avoid all that could give pain or offence to any one was habitual to him—and yet, at the same time, there was joined to the high tone of demeanour a sort of freshness of ideas, a picturesqueness of language and of thought, which were very captivating, even when employed upon ordinary subjects. It is an art—perhaps I might almost call it a faculty—of minds like his, insensibly and naturally to lead others from the most common topics, to matters of deeper interest, and thoughts of a less every-day character. It is as if two persons were riding along the high road together, and one of them, without his companion remarking it, were to guide their horses into some bridle-path displaying in its course new views and beautiful points in the scenery around.
Thus ere they reached the inn, the fair girl, who leaned upon the arm of an acquaintance of half an hour, seemed to her own feelings as well acquainted with him as if she had known him for years, and was talking with him on a thousand subjects on which she had never conversed with any one before.
The Duke, who, although good-humoured and kindly, was somewhat stately, and perhaps a very little ostentatious withal, on the arrival of the party at the inn, insisted upon the two gentlemen doing him the honour of supping with him that night, "as well," he said, "as the poorness of the place would permit;" and a room apart having been assigned to him, he retired thither, with the humbly bowing host, to issue his own orders regarding their provision. The larder of the inn, however, proved to be miraculously well stocked; the landlord declared that no town in Burgundy, no, nor Bordeaux itself, could excel the wine that he would produce; and while the servants with messengers from the inn brought in packages, which seemed innumerable, from the carriage, the cook toiled in her vocation, the host and hostess bustled about to put all the rooms in order, Sir John Fenwick and Wilton Brown talked at the door of the inn, and Lady Laura retired to alter her dress, which had been somewhat deranged by the overthrow of the carriage.
At length, however, it was announced that supper was ready, and Wilton with his companion entered the room, where the Duke and his daughter awaited them. On going in, Wilton was struck and surprised; and, indeed, he almost paused in his advance, at the sight of the young lady, as she stood by her father. In the grey of the twilight, he had only remarked that she was a very pretty girl; and as they had walked along to the inn, she had shown so little of the manner and consciousness of a professed beauty, that he had not even suspected she might be more than he had first imagined. When he saw her now, however, in the full light, he was, as we have said, struck with surprise by the vision of radiant loveliness which her face and form presented. Wilton was too wise, however, and knew his own situation too well, even to dream of falling in love with a duke's daughter; and though he might, when her eyes were turned a different way, gaze upon her and admire, it was but as a man who looks at a jewel in a king's crown, which he knows he can never possess.
Well pleased to please, and having nothing in his thoughts to embarrass or trouble him on that particular occasion, he gave way to his natural feelings, and won no small favour and approbation in the eyes of the Duke and his fair daughter. The evening, which had begun with two of the party so inauspiciously, passed over lightly and gaily; and after supper, Wilton rose to retire to rest, with a sigh, perhaps, from some ill-defined emotions, but with a recollection of two or three happy hours to be added to the treasury of such sweet things which memory stores for us in our way through life.
As the inn was very full, the young gentleman had to pass through the kitchen to reach the staircase of his appointed room. Standing before the kitchen fire, and talking over his shoulder to the landlord, who stood a step behind him, was a tall, broad-shouldered, powerful man, dressed in a good suit of green broad cloth, laced with gold. His face was to the fire, and his back to Wilton, and he did not turn or look round while the young gentleman was there. The landlord hastened to give his guest a light, and show him his room; and Wilton passed a night, which, if not dreamless, was visited by no other visions but sweet ones.
On the following morning he was up early, and approached the window of his room to throw it open, and to let in the sweet early air to visit him, while he dressed himself; but the moment he went near the window, he saw that it looked into a pretty garden laid out in the old English style. That garden, however, was already tenanted by two persons apparently deep in earnest conversation. One of those two persons was evidently Sir John Fenwick, and the other was the stranger in green and gold, whom Wilton had remarked the night before at the kitchen fire.
Seeing how earnestly they were speaking, he refrained from opening his window, and proceeded to dress himself; but he could not avoid having, every now and then, a full view of the faces of the two, as they turned backwards and forwards at the end of the garden. Something that he there saw puzzled and surprised him: the appearance of the stranger in green seemed more familiar to him than it could have become by the casual glance he had obtained of it in the inn kitchen; and he became more and more convinced, at every turn they took before him, that this personage was no other than the man he had beheld standing on the bank, taking no part with the gentlemen of the road, indeed, but evidently belonging to their company.
This puzzled him, as we have said, not a little. Sir John Fenwick was a gentleman of good repute, whom he had heard of before now. He had married the Lady Mary Howard, daughter of the Earl of Carlisle, and, though a stanch Jacobite, it was supposed, he was nevertheless looked upon as a man of undoubted probity and honour. What could have been his business, then, with thieves, or at best with the companions of thieves? This was a question which Wilton could no ways solve; and after having teased himself for some time therewith, he at length descended to the little parlour of the inn, and ordered his horse to be brought round as speedily as possible. He felt in his own bosom, indeed, some inclination to wait for an hour or two, in order to take leave of the Duke and his fair daughter; but remembering his own situation with the Earl, as well as feeling some of his gloomy sensations of the day before returning upon him, he determined to set out without loss of time. He mounted accordingly, and took his way towards London at a quick pace, in order to arrive before the Earl's breakfast hour.
There are, however, in that part of the country, manifold hills, over which none but a very inhumane man, unless he were pursued by enemies, or pursuing a fox, would urge his horse at a rapid rate; and as Wilton Brown was slowly climbing one of the first of these, he was overtaken by another horseman, who turned out to be none other than the worthy gentleman in the green coat.
"Good morrow to you, Master Wilton Brown," said the stranger, pulling up his horse as soon as he had reached him: "we are riding along the same road, I find, and may as well keep companionship as we go. These are sad times, and the roads are dangerous."
"They are, indeed, my good sir," replied Wilton, who was, in general, not without that capability of putting down intrusion at a word, which, strangely enough, is sometimes a talent of the lowest and meanest order of frivolous intellects, but is almost always found in the firm and decided—"they are, indeed, if I may judge by what you and I saw last night."
The stranger did not move a muscle, but answered, quite coolly, "Ay, sad doings though, sad doings: you knocked that fellow down smartly—a neat blow, as I should wish to see: I thought you would have shot one of them, for my part."
"It is a pity you had not been beforehand with me," answered Wilton: "you seemed to have been some time enjoying the sport when we came up."
The stranger now laughed aloud. "No, no," he said, "that would not do; I could not interfere; I am not conservator of the King's Highway; and, for my part, it should always be open for gentlemen to act as they liked, though I would not take any share in the matter for the world."
"There is such a thing," replied Wilton, not liking his companion at all—"there is such a thing as taking no share in the risk, and a share in the profit."
A quick flush passed over the horseman's cheek, but remained not a moment. "That is not my case," he replied, in a graver tone than he had hitherto used; "not a stiver would I have taken that came out of the good Duke's pocket, had it been to save me from starving. I take no money from any but an enemy; and when we cannot carry on the war with them in the open field, I do not see why we should not carry it on with them in any way we can. But to attack a friend, or an indifferent person, is not at all in my way."
"Oh! I begin to understand you somewhat more clearly," replied Wilton; "but allow me to say, my good sir, that it were much better not to talk to me any more upon such subjects. By so doing, you run a needless risk yourself, and can do neither of us any good. Of course," he added, willing to change the conversation, "it was Sir John Fenwick who told you my name."
"Yes," replied the other; "but it was needless, for I knew it before."
"And yet," said Wilton, "I do not remember that we ever met."
"There you are mistaken," answered the traveller; "we met no longer ago than last Monday week. You were going down the High-street in your cap and gown, and you saw some boys looking into a tart shop, and gave them some pence to buy what they longed for."
The ingenuous colour came up into Wilton Brown's cheek, as he remembered the little circumstance to which the man alluded. "I did not see you," he said.
"But I saw you," answered the man, "and was pleased with what I saw; for I am one of those whom the hard lessons of life have taught to judge more by the small acts done in private, than by the great acts that all mankind must see. Man's closet acts are for his own heart and God's eye; man's public deeds are paintings for the world. However, I was pleased, as I have said, and I have seen more things of you also that have pleased me well. You saw me, passed me by, and would not know me again in the same shape to-morrow; but I take many forms, when it may suit my purposes; and having been well pleased with you once or twice, I take heed of what you are about when I do see you."
Wilton Brown mused over what he said for a moment or two, and then replied, "I should much like to know what it was first induced you to take any notice of my actions at all—there must have been some motive, of course."
"Oh, no," replied the other—"there is no MUST! It might have been common curiosity. Every likely youth, with a pair of broad shoulders and a soldier-like air, is worth looking after in these times of war and trouble. But the truth is, I know those who know something of you, and, if I liked, I could introduce you to one whom you have not seen for many a year."
"What is his name?" demanded Wilton Brown, turning sharply upon the stranger, and gazing full in his face.
"Oh! I name no names," replied the stranger; "I know not whether it would be liked or not. However, some day I will do what I have said, if I can get leave; and now I think I will wish you good morning, for here lies my road, and there lies yours."
"But stay, stay, yet a moment," said Wilton, checking his horse; "how am I to hear of you, or to see you again?"
"Oh!" replied the stranger, in a gay tone, "I will contrive that, fear not!—Nevertheless, in case you should need it, you can ask for me at the tavern at the back of Beaufort House: the Green Dragon, it is called."
"And your name, your name?" said Wilton, seeing the other about to ride away.
"My name! ay, I had forgot—why, your name is Brown—call me Green, if you like. One colour's just as good as another, and I may as well keep the complexion of my good friend, the Dragon, in countenance. So you wont forget, it is Mister Green, at the Green Dragon, in the Green Lane at the back of Beaufort House; and now, Mister Brown, I leave you a brown study, to carry you on your way."
So saying, he turned his horse's head, and cantered easily over the upland which skirted the road to the left. After he had gone about a couple of hundred yards, Wilton saw him stop and pause, as if thoughtfully, for a minute. But without turning back to the road, he again put spurs to his horse, and was out of sight in a few moments.
Wilton then rode on to London, without farther pause or adventure of any kind; but it were vain to say that, in this instance, "care did not sit behind the horseman;" for many an anxious thought, and unresolved question, and intense meditation, were his companions on his onward way. Fortunately, however, his horse was not troubled in the same manner; and about five minutes before the hour he had proposed to himself, Wilton was standing before the house of the Earl in St. James's-square. The servants were all rejoiced to see him, for, unlike persons in his situation in general, he was very popular amongst them; but the Earl, he was informed, had not yet risen, and the account the young gentleman received of his health made him sad and apprehensive.
IN about an hour's time, the Earl of Sunbury descended to breakfast; and he expressed no small pleasure at the unexpected appearance of his young protege.
"You were always a kind and an affectionate boy, Wilton," he said; "and you have kept your good feelings unchanged, I am happy to find. Depend upon it, when one can do so, amongst all the troubles, and cares, and corrupting things of this world, we find in the feelings of the heart that consolation, when sorrows and disappointments assail us, which no gift or favour of man can impart. I believe, indeed, that within the last six months, with all the bodily pains and mental anxieties I have had to suffer, I should either have died or gone mad, had not my mind obtained relief, from time to time, in the enjoyment of the beauties of nature, the works of art, and the productions of genius. Nor have my thoughts been altogether unoccupied with you," he added, after a moment's pause, "and that occupation would have been most pleasant to my mind, Wilton, inasmuch as through your whole course you have given me undivided satisfaction. But, alas! I cannot do for you all that I should wish to do. You know that my own estates are all entailed upon distant relatives, whom I do not even know. I am not a man, as you are well aware, to accumulate wealth; and all I can possibly assure to you is the enjoyment of the same income I have hitherto allowed you, and which, in case of my death, I will take care shall be yours."
Wilton listened, as may be supposed, with affection and gratitude; but he tried, after expressing all he felt, and assuring the Earl that he possessed as much as he desired, to put an end to a conversation which was rendered the more painful to him by the marked alteration which he perceived in the person of his friend since he had last seen him.
The Earl, however, would not suffer the subject to drop, replying, "I know well that you are no way extravagant, Wilton, and maintain the appearance of a gentleman upon smaller means than many could or would; but yet, my good youth, you are naturally ambitious; and there are a thousand wants, necessities, and desires still to be gratified, which at present you neither perceive nor provide for. You are not destined, Wilton, to go on all your life, content in the seclusion of a college, with less than three hundred a year. Every man should strive to fulfil to the utmost his destiny—I mean, should endeavour to reach the highest point in any way which God has given him the capability of attaining. You must become more than you are, greater, higher, richer, by your own exertions. Had my health suffered me to remain here, I could have easily facilitated your progress in political life. Now I must trust your advancement to another; and you will perhaps think it strange, that the person I do trust it to should not be any of my old and intimate political friends. But I have my reasons for what I do, which you will some day know; and before I go, I must exact one promise of you, which is to put yourself under the guidance of the person whom I have mentioned, and to accept whatever post he may think the best calculated to promote your future views. As he now holds one of the highest stations in the ministry, I could have wished him to name you his private secretary, but that office is at present filled, and he has promised me most solemnly to find you some occupation within the next half-year. Your allowance shall be regularly transmitted to you till my return; and, until you receive some appointment, you had better remain at Oxford, which may give you perhaps the means of taking your first degree. And now, my dear boy, that I have explained all this, what were you about to say regarding the adventures you met with in your journey?"
"First let me ask, sir," replied Wilton, "who is the gentleman you have so kindly interested for me?"
"Oh! I thought you had divined: it is the Earl of Byerdale, now all potent in the counsels of the King—at least, so men suppose and say. However, I look upon it that you have given me the promise that I ask."
"Undoubtedly, my lord," replied Wilton: "in such a case, I must ever look upon your wishes as a command."
The conversation then turned to other and lighter matters, and Wilton amused his friend with the detail of the adventures of the preceding night.
"Sir John Fenwick!" exclaimed the Earl, as soon as Wilton came to the events that succeeded the robbery—"he is a dangerous companion, Sir John Fenwick! We know him to be disaffected, a nonjuror, and a plotter of a dark and intriguing character. Who was the Duke he met with? Duke of what?"
"On my word, I cannot tell you, sir," replied Wilton; "I did not hear his name: they called his daughter Lady Laura."
"You are a strange young man, Wilton," replied the Earl; "there are probably not two men in Europe who would have failed to inquire, if it were no more than the name of this pretty girl you mention."
"If there had been the slightest probability of my ever meeting her again," replied Wilton, "I most likely should have inquired. But my story is not ended yet;" and he went on to detail what had occurred during his ride that morning.
This seemed to strike and interest the Earl more than the rest; and he immediately asked his young companion a vast number of questions, all relating to the personal appearance of the gentleman in green, who had been the comrade of his early ride.
After all these interrogatories had been answered, he mused for a minute or two, and then observed, "No, no, it could not be. This personage in green, Wilton, depend upon it, is some agent of Sir John Fenwick, and the Jacobite party. He has got some intimation of your name and situation, and has most likely seen you once or twice in Oxford, where, I am sorry to say, there are too many such as himself. They have fixed their eyes upon you, and, depend upon it, there will be many attempts to gain your adherence to an unsuccessful and a desperate party. Be wise, my dear Wilton, and shun all communication with such people. No one who has not filled such a station as I have, can be aware of their manifold arts."
Wilton promised to be upon his guard, and the conversation dropped there. It had suggested, however, a new train of ideas to the mind of the young gentleman—new, I mean, solely in point of combination, for the ideas themselves referred to subjects long known and often thought of. It appeared evident to him, that the question which the Earl had put to himself in secret, when he heard of his conversation with the man in green, was, "Can this be any one, who really knows the early history of Wilton Brown?" and the question which Wilton in turn asked himself was, "How is the Earl connected with that early history?"
Many painful doubts had often suggested themselves to the mind of Wilton Brown in regard to that very subject; and those doubts themselves had prevented him from pressing on the Earl questions which might have brought forth the facts, but which, at the same time, he thought, might pain that nobleman most bitterly, if his suspicions should prove accurate.
The Earl himself had always carefully avoided the subject, and when any accidental words led towards it, had taken evident pains to change the conversation. What had occurred that morning, however, weighed upon Wilton's mind, and he more than once asked himself the question—"Who and what am I?"
There was a painful solution always ready at hand; but then again he replied to his own suspicions—"The Earl certainly treats me like a noble and generous friend, but not like a father." The conclusion of all these thoughts was,—
"Even though I may give the Earl a moment's pain, I must ask him the question before he goes to Italy;" and he watched his opportunity for several days, without finding any means of introducing such a topic.
At length, one morning, when the Earl happened to be saying something farther regarding the young man's future fate, Wilton seized the opportunity, and replied, "With me, my dear lord, the future and the past are alike equally dark and doubtful. I wish, indeed, that I might be permitted to know a little of the latter, at least." "Do not let us talk upon that subject at present, Wilton," said the Earl, somewhat impatiently; "you will know it all soon enough. At one-and-twenty you shall have all the information that can be given to you."
But few words more passed on that matter, and they only conveyed a reiteration of the Earl's promise more distinctly. On the afternoon of that day another person was added to the dinner table of the Earl of Sunbury. Wilton knew not that anybody was coming, till he perceived that the Earl waited for some guest; but at length the Earl of Byerdale was announced, and a tall good-looking man, of some fifty years of age, or perhaps less, entered the room, with that calm, slow, noiseless sort of footstep, which generally accompanies a disposition either naturally or habitually cautious. It is somewhat like the footstep of a cat over a dewy lawn.
Between the statesman's brows was a deep-set wrinkle, which gave his countenance a sullen and determined character, and the left-hand corner of his mouth, as well as the marking line between the lips and the cheek, were drawn sharply down, as if he were constantly in the presence of somebody he disliked and rather scorned. Yet he strove frequently to smile, made gay and very courteous speeches too, and said small pleasant things with a peculiar grace. He was, indeed, a very gentlemanly and courtly personage, and those who liked him were wont to declare, that it was not his fault if his countenance was somewhat forbidding. By some persons, indeed—as is frequently the case with people of weak and subservient characters—the very sneer upon his lip, and the authoritative frown upon his brow, were received as marks of dignity, and signs of a high and powerful mind.
Such things, however, did not at all impose upon a man so thoroughly acquainted with courts and cabinets as the Earl of Sunbury, and the consequence was, that Lord Byerdale, with all his coolness, self-confidence, and talent, felt himself second in the company of the greater mind, and though he liked not the feeling, yet stretched his courtesy and politeness farther than usual.
When he entered, he advanced towards the Earl with one of his most bright and placid smiles, apologized for being a little later than his time, was delighted to see the Earl looking rather better, and then turned to see who was the other person in the room, in order to apportion his civility accordingly. When he beheld Wilton Brown, the young gentleman's fine person, his high and lofty look, and a certain air of distinction and self-possession about him, though so young, appeared to strike and puzzle him; but the Earl instantly introduced his protege to the statesman, saying, "The young friend, my lord, of whom I spoke to you, Mr. Wilton Brown."
Lord Byerdale was now as polite as he could be, assured the young gentleman that all his small interest could command should be at his service; and while he did so, he looked from his countenance to that of the Earl, and from the Earl's to his, as if he were comparing them with one another. Then, again, he glanced his eyes to a beautiful picture by Kneller, of a lady dressed in a fanciful costume, which hung on one side of the drawing-room.
Wilton remarked the expression of his face as he did so; and his own thoughts, connecting that expression with foregone suspicions, rendered it painful. Quitting the room for a moment before dinner was announced, he retired to his own chamber, and looked for an instant in the glass. He was instantly struck by an extraordinary resemblance, between himself and the picture, which had never occurred to him before.
In the meanwhile, as soon as he had quitted the room, the Earl said, in a calm, grave tone to his companion, pointing at the same time to the picture which the other had been remarking, "The likeness is indeed very striking, and might, perhaps, lead one to a suspicion which is not correct."
"Oh, my dear lord," replied the courtier, "you must not think I meant anything of the kind. I did remark a slight likeness, perhaps; but I was admiring the beauty of the portrait. That is a Kneller, of course; none could paint that but Kneller."
The Earl bowed his head and turned to the window. "It is the portrait," he said, "of one of my mother's family, a third or fourth cousin of my own. Her father, Sir Harry Oswald, was obliged to fly, you know, for one of those sad affairs in the reign of Charles the Second, and his estates and effects were sold. I bought that picture at the time, with several other things, as memorials of them, poor people."
"She must have been very handsome," said Lord Byerdale.
"The painter did her less than justice," replied the Earl, in the same quiet tone: "she and her father died in France, within a short time of each other; and there is certainly a strong likeness between that portrait and Wilton.—There is no relationship, however."
Notwithstanding the quiet tone in which the Earl spoke, Lord Byerdale kept his own opinion upon the subject, but dropped it as a matter of conversation. The evening passed over as pleasantly as the illness of the Earl would permit; and certainly, if Wilton Brown was not well pleased with the Earl of Byerdale, it was not from any lack of politeness on the part of that gentleman. That he felt no particular inclination towards him is not to be denied; but nevertheless he was grateful for his kindness, even of demeanour, and doubted not—such was his inexperience of the world—that the Earl of Byerdale would always treat him in the same manner.
After this day, which proved, in reality, an eventful one in the life of Wilton Brown, about a week elapsed before the Earl set out for the Continent. Wilton saw him on board, and dropped down the river with him; and after his noble friend had quitted the shores of England, he turned his steps again towards Oxford, without lingering at all in the capital. It must be confessed, that he felt a much greater degree of loneliness, than he had expected to experience on the departure of the Earl. He knew now, for the first time, how much he had depended upon, and loved and trusted, the only real friend that he ever remembered to have had. It is true, that while the Earl was resident in London, and he principally in Oxford, they saw but little of each other; but still it made a great change, when several countries, some at peace and some at war with England, lay between them, and when the cold melancholy sea stretched its wide barrier to keep them asunder. He felt that he had none to appeal to for advice or aid, when advice or aid should be wanting; that the director of his youth was gone, and that he was left to win for himself that dark experience of the world's ways, which never can be learned, without paying the sad price of sorrow and disappointment.
Such were naturally his first feelings; and though the acuteness of them wore away, the impression still remained whenever thought was turned in that direction. He was soon cheered, however, by a letter from the Earl, informing him of his having arrived safely in Piedmont; and shortly after, the first quarter of his usual allowance was transmitted to him, with a brief polite note from the Earl of Byerdale, in whose hands Lord Sunbury seemed entirely to have placed him. Wilton acknowledged the note immediately, and then applied himself to his studies again; but shortly after, he was shocked by a rumour reaching him, that his kind friend had been taken prisoner by the French. While he was making inquiries, as diligently as was possible in that place, and was hesitating, as to whether, in order to learn more, he should go to London or not, he received a second epistle froth the Earl of Byerdale, couched in much colder terms than his former communication, putting the question of the Earl's capture beyond doubt, and at the same time stating, that as he understood this circumstance was likely to stop the allowance which had usually been made to Mr. Brown, he, the Earl of Byerdale, was anxious to give him some employment as speedily as possible, although that employment might not be such as he could wish to bestow. He begged him, therefore, to come to London with all speed, to speak with him on the subject, and ended, by assuring him that he was—what Wilton knew him not to be—his very humble and most obedient servant.
On first reading the note, Wilton had almost formed a rash resolution—had almost determined neither to go to London at all, nor to repose upon the friendship and assistance of the Earl of Byerdale. But recollecting his promise to his noble friend before his departure, he resolved to endure anything rather than violate such an engagement; and consequently wrote to say he would wait upon the Earl as soon as the term was over, to the close of which there wanted but a week or two at that time.
In that week or two, however, Wilton was destined to feel some of the first inconveniences attending a sudden change in his finances. Remembering, that, for the time at least, more than two-thirds of his income was gone, he instantly began to contract all his expenses, and suffered, before the end of the term, not a few of the painful followers of comparative poverty.
He now felt, and felt bitterly, that the small sum which he received from his college would not be sufficient to maintain him at the University, even with the greatest economy; so that, besides his promise to the Earl, to accept whatever Lord Byerdale should offer him, absolute necessity seemed to force him as a dependent upon that nobleman, at least till he could hear some news of his more generous friend.
It is an undoubted fact, that small annoyances are often more difficult to bear than evils of greater magnitude; and Wilton felt all those attendant upon his present situation most acutely. To appear differently amongst his noble comrades at the University; to have no longer a horse, to join them in their rides; to be obliged to sell the fine books he had collected, and one or two small pictures by great masters which he had bought; to be questioned and commiserated by the acquaintances who cared the least for him;—all these were separate sources of great and acute pain to a feeling and sensitive heart, not yet accustomed to adversity. Wilton, however, had not been schooling his own mind in vain for the last two years; and though he felt as much as any one, every privation, yet he succeeded in bearing them all with calmness and fortitude, and perhaps even curtailed every indulgence more sternly than was absolutely necessary at the time, from a fear that the reluctance which he felt might in any degree blind his eyes to that which was just and right.
A few instruments of music, a few books not absolutely required in his studies, his implements for drawing, and all the little trinkets or gifts of any kind which he had received from the Earl of Sunbury, were the only things that he still preserved, which merited in any degree the name of superfluities. With the sum obtained from the sale of the rest, he discharged to the uttermost farthing all the expenses of the preceding term, took his first degree with honour, and then set out upon his journey to London.
No adventure attended him upon the way; and on the morning after his arrival, he presented himself at an early hour at the house of the Earl of Byerdale. After waiting for some time, he was received by that nobleman with a cold and stately air; and having given him a hint, that it would have been more respectful if he had come up immediately to London, instead of waiting at Oxford till the end of the term, the Earl proceeded to inform him of his views.
"Our noble and excellent friend, the Earl of Sunbury," said the statesman, "was very anxious, Mr. Brown, that I should receive you as my private secretary. Now, as I informed him, the gentleman whom I have always employed cannot of course be removed from that situation without cause; but, at the same time, what between my public and my private business, I have need of greater assistance than he can render me. I have need, in fact, of two private secretaries, and one will naturally succeed the other, when, as will probably be the case, in about six months the first is removed by appointment to a higher office. I will give you till to-morrow to consider, whether the post I now offer you is worth your acceptance. The salary we must make the same as the allowance which has lately unfortunately ceased; and I am only sorry that I can give you no further time for reflection, as I have already delayed three weeks without deciding between various applicants, in order to give you time to arrive in London."
Wilton replied not at the moment; for there was certainly not one word said by the Earl which could give him any assignable cause of offence, and yet he was grieved and offended. It was the tone, the manner, the cold haughtiness of every look and gesture that pained him. He was not moved by any boyish conceit; he was always willing, even in his own mind, to offer deep respect to high rank, or high station, or high talents. He would have been ready to own at once, that the Earl was far superior to himself in all these particulars; but that which did annoy him, as it might annoy any one, was to be made to feel the superiority, at every word, by the language and demeanour of the Earl himself.
He retired, then, to the inn, where, for the first time during all his many visits to London, he had taken up his residence; and there, pacing up and down the room, he thought bitterly over Lord Byerdale's proposal. The situation offered to him was far inferior to what he had been led to expect; and he evidently saw, that the demeanour of the Earl himself would render every circumstance connected with it painful, or at least unpleasant. Yet, what was he to do? There were, indeed, a thousand other ways of gaining his livelihood, at least till the Earl of Sunbury were set free; but then, his promise that he would not refuse anything which was offered by Lord Byerdale again came into his mind, and he determined, with that resolute firmness which characterized him even at an early age, to bear all, and to endure all; to keep his word with the Earl to the letter, and to accept an office in the execution of which he anticipated nothing but pain, mortification, and discomfort.
Such being the case, he thought it much better to write his resolutions to the Earl, than to expose himself to more humiliation by speaking with him on the subject again. He had suffered sufficiently in their last conversation on that matter, and he felt that he should have enough to endure in the execution of his duties. He wrote, indeed, as coldly as the Earl had spoken; but he made no allusion to his disappointment, or to any hopes of more elevated employment.
He expressed himself ready to commence his labours as soon as the Earl thought right; and in the course of three days was fully established as the second private secretary of the Earl.
The next three or four months of his life we shall pass over as briefly as possible, for they were chequered by no incident of very great interest. The Earl employed him daily, but how did he employ him?—As a mere clerk. No public paper, no document of any importance, passed through his hands. Letters on private business, the details of some estates in Shropshire, copies of long and to him meaningless accounts, and notes and memorandums, referring to affairs of very little interest, were the occupations given to a man of active, energetic, and cultivated mind, of eager aspirations, and a glowing fancy. It may be asked, how did the Earl treat him, too?—As a clerk! and not as most men of gentlemanly feeling would treat a clerk. Seldom any salutation marked his entrance into the room, and cold, formal orders were all that he received.
Wilton bore it all with admirable patience; he murmured not, otherwise than in secret; but often when he returned to his own solitary room, in the small lodging he had taken for himself in London, the heart within his bosom felt like a newly-imprisoned bird, as if it would beat itself to death against the bars that confined it.
Amidst all this, there was some consolation came. A letter arrived one morning, after this had continued about two months, bearing one postmark from Oxford, and another from Italy. It was from the Earl of Sunbury, who was better, and wrote in high spirits. He had been arrested by the French, and having been taken for a general officer of distinction, bad been detained for several weeks. But he had been well treated, and set at liberty, as soon as his real name and character were ascertained. Only one of Wilton's letters, and that of an early date, had reached him, so that he knew none of the occurrences which placed his young friend in so painful a situation, but conceived him to be still at Oxford, and still possessing the allowance which he had made him.
The moment he received these tidings, Wilton replied to it with a feeling of joy and a hope of deliverance, which showed itself in every line of the details he gave. This letter was more fortunate than the others, and the Earl's answer was received within a month. That answer, however, in some degree disappointed his young friend. Lord Sunbury praised his conduct much for accepting the situation which had been offered; but he tried to soothe him under the conduct of the Earl of Byerdale, while he both blamed that conduct and censured the Earl in severe terms, for having suffered the allowance which he had authorized him to pay to drop in so sudden and unexpected a manner. To guard against the recurrence of such a thing for the future, the Earl enclosed an order on his steward for the sum, with directions that it should be paid in preference to anything else whatsoever. At the same time, however, he urged Wilton earnestly not to quit the Earl of Byerdale, but to remain in the employment which he had accepted, at least till the return of a more sincere friend from the Continent should afford the prospect of some better and more agreeable occupation.
Wilton resolved to submit; and as he saw that the Earl was anxious upon the subject, wrote to him immediately, to announce that such was the case. Hope gave him patience; and the increased means at his command afforded him the opportunity of resuming the habits of that station in which he had always hitherto moved. In these respects, he was now perfectly at his ease, for his habits were not expensive; and he could indulge in all, to which his wishes led him, without those careful thoughts which had been forced upon him by the sudden straitening of his means. Such, then, was his situation when, towards the end of about three months, a new change came over his fate, a new era began in the history of his life.
How often is it that a new acquaintance, begun under accidental circumstances, forms an epoch in life? How often does it change in every respect the current of our days on earth—ay! and affect eternity itself? The point of time at which we form such an acquaintance is, in fact, the spot at which two streams meet. There, the waters of both are insensibly blended together—the clear and the turbid, the rough and the smooth, the rapid and the slow. Each not only modifies the manner, and the direction, and the progress of the other with which it mingles, but even if any material object separates the united stream again into two, the individuality of both those that originally formed it is lost, and each is affected for ever by the progress they have had together.